By Alisa Childers

There’s nothing like grabbing a cup of coffee, sitting down to read your Bible, only to be confronted with a verse like Judges 21:20, 21:

Then they commanded the Benjamites: Go and hide in the vineyards. Watch, and when you
see the young women of Shiloh come out to perform the dances, each of you leave the
vineyard and catch a wife for yourself from the young women of Shiloh, and go to the land of
Benjamin.

Excuse me. What? In the Bible, men were told to catch wives for themselves?

Understanding verses like this can be confusing, especially when skeptics cherry pick them to accuse God of misogyny or other moral evils. Here are 5 things to consider when trying to wade through the murky waters of difficult passages of Scripture. I’ll apply each point with the verse written above.

1. Pray.

Before I read my Bible, I pray and ask God to help me. It may sound simple, but having the humility to acknowledge God and ask for His help before, during, and after reading the Bible will help enlighten our understanding of His Word.

Application to Judges 21:20, 21:

  • “God, this verse doesn’t make sense to me. Please open my eyes and help me to understand what it means and how it applies to my life.”
2. Consider the genre.

The Bible is not a book. It’s a collection of books, by 40 different authors, written over a period of about 1,500 years. Just like the different types of books we read today, the different books of the Bible have different genres. Some books are poetry, and some are historical narrative. Other biblical genres are wisdom literature, biography, and prophecy, to name a few. In order to understand what the passage is saying, we must understand its genre.

Application to Judges 21:20, 21:

  • The genre of the book of Judges is history, part of a larger work called Deuteronomistic History, which includes Deuteronomy, Joshua, Samuel, and Kings. Not everything recorded in history is something God approves of. Some passages of Scripture are prescriptive, in that they prescribe or advocate a certain behavior, and others are descriptive, in that they simply describe what happened. This passage from Judges is describing an event, not necessarily prescribing behavior.
3. Compare Scripture with Scripture.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about interpreting Scripture was that if one verse is unclear about a particular issue, interpret it in light of the clear verses. Also, examine the difficult verse in light of the general teaching of all of Scripture, and what has been revealed about the nature and character of God. In other words, it’s important that we read Scripture through God’s eyes, not through the lens of our own contemporary culture.

Application to Judges 21:20, 21:

  • We know from Genesis 2:22-24 that marriage was originally given by God to be a uniting of man and woman into “one flesh.” In Ephesians 5:25, husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loves the church. In Deuteronomy 24:5, the woman’s happiness in marriage was valued. Exodus 21:16 forbids kidnapping, and many times in Scripture, our relationship with Christ is compared to a marital relationship. The general testimony of Scripture is that marriage was created as a loyal, intimate and sacred partnership. In the light of the whole of Scripture, it’s fair to conclude that there may be more to Judges 21 than initially meets the eye.
4. Consider the Context.

Never read just one verse of the Bible. Always consider the overarching view of where the particular passage fits into the book’s structure and the historical context within which the particular passage is written. Also, consider the surrounding context, which is what comes before and after whichever passage you are struggling with. Sometimes this means reading the whole chapter before and after, to get a firm grasp of what the verse is actually communicating.

Application to Judges 21:20, 21:

  • Overarching view: This passage is found in the very last chapter of the book of Judges, in a cluster of chapters that are considered to be the most lawless and dark periods of Israel’s history. This was an age of anarchy, and these chapters illustrate Israel’s failure to live in covenant relationship with God.
  • Surrounding context: In the beginning of the chapter, the men of Israel swore an oath to not give their daughters to the Benjamites in marriage. Why? It turns out that this whole conflict began somewhere around Judges 19, where a man’s wife was abused, raped and killed, starting a war between Benjamin and Israel. Multiple thousands of people were killed on both sides of this brutal and bloody battle. There weren’t many Benjamite men left when it was over, and there were no women left for them to marry. Even though they were bitter rivals in this war, Israel and Benjamin were both from the twelve tribes of Israel, and Israel didn’t want to lose the Benjamite bloodline. They took matters into their own hands and suggested the Benjamites “catch wives” for themselves from the young women of Shiloh, so they wouldn’t technically break their vow by actually “giving” them wives. Knowing who is giving the instruction in this verse is key to understanding how to interpret it. In this case, neither God nor one of His prophets is giving the command.
  • The puzzle of this passage is solved by recognizing what is explained at the end of the chapter in verse 25: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever he wanted.” In other words, God did not tell them to “catch wives” for themselves. They did that on their own, and there is no indication that God approved of it.
5. Don’t skip the hard stuff.

When confronted with a difficult verse, it can be tempting to just set it aside and ignore it. This can lead to a misunderstanding of what is being communicated and can feed unnecessary doubts. If you don’t understand the passage even after considering the suggestions above, submit it to God, and apply what you do understand. 1 John 1:7 tells us to “walk in the light.” In his Basic Theology, Charles Ryrie communicates that as believers respond to the light God gives us, He will give us more. So respond to the light you have been given, and trust God with what you don’t yet understand.

Application to Judges 21:20, 21:

  • “God, I understand that many things in this historical story and the events that led up to verse 21 happened because your people weren’t obedient to You and Your ways. Please help me to always submit my will to Yours, and to know that Your ways are better than mine, even if the situation seems hopeless.”

Is there a difficult verse you have been struggling with? Some things in Scripture are challenging to comprehend, but they are worth the time and energy it takes to dig deep. I pray these 5 tips will help you grow in your knowledge and understanding of God’s Word!